IN time, all Hollywood would be speculating on the matter, but it was a crew member, Billy, who called the race first and best.

"Halfway through the film he stopped me and said: 'You know Dave, you've got a real good one here. I've got a great feeling about this film and I've only had this feeling once before, on A Man For All Seasons'."

The Dave in question is better known today as Lord David Puttnam, inset, the film was 1981's Chariots of Fire, and while the picture did not quite reach the six-Oscar heights of Fred Zinneman's historical drama, four Academy Awards came Chariots' way. "The British are coming!" writer Colin Welland announced at the Oscars ceremony, and for once that seemed likely.

A digitally-remastered Chariots of Fire had its UK premiere on Tuesday in Edinburgh, home of the film's principal hero, Eric Liddell. Along with Harold Abrahams, Liddell won gold in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Both men had to overcome religious prejudice to succeed, Abrahams because he was Jewish, and Liddell because as a devout Christian he refused to run on the Sabbath.

Though a tale of great British pluck, Chariots is very much a Scottish picture, with many scenes shot here, including the famous run on St Andrews beach to the Vangelis soundtrack. Despite its vintage, Lord Puttnam, who was in Edinburgh for the premiere, believes it is a film that is just as pertinent today. "The film, essentially, is about the power of saying 'no'. I think we have drifted even further than we were 30 years ago from our ability to say no. We are more like clones, we are more like economic robots than we even were then."

What endures, says Puttnam, are Liddell's values, among them faith in doing the right thing, hope, charity and modesty. They are values he saw for himself this week at the Eric Liddell Centre in Edinburgh, a charity set up to help and inspire those in need. "I was knocked out by the centre and the work they are doing. They are the same people, they have the same values. The problem is those values are more unusual, they are more a small island in a sea of chaos."

What is striking about Chariots today is that it shows how simple the Olympics used to be. This was an event where the athletes wore their overcoats between races, where there wasn't a Coca-Cola hoarding or a McDonald's in sight, and staging the event certainly didn't cost the £9 billion-plus poured into London 2012.

Puttnam disapproves of the commercialism surrounding London 2012. "It doesn't appeal to me. I find it wrong." Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, would not have been pleased either, he reckons. "His original vision for the Olympics was a million miles away from Beijing or London. I think he would have been shocked, slightly horrified, because it was not what he was about. I don't quite understand the obsessive need for that much money. I think at some point it will prove to be unsustainable."

After London won the bid in 2005, Puttnam, a Labour supporter and the then president of the children's charity Unicef UK, lobbied Chancellor Gordon Brown to make the opening ceremony an "enormous fundraiser" for young people in sport. Mr Brown was enthusiastic, the IOC was not. He hopes, nevertheless, that it is an idea that will be taken up in future.

Puttnam became a life peer in 1997. Thoughtful, creative, successful in business and ferociously hard-working, he's about as good an argument for an unelected House of Lords as it is possible to get. While he has made a significant contribution through his political work, chiefly in education, media, and climate change, it is as a movie producer that he is best known. The mover and shaker behind Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, The Killing Fields and The Mission, his films have won Oscars, Baftas, and a Palme d'Or. Then there is Local Hero.

Between them, Puttnam and director Bill Forsyth created one of the most adored films in Scottish cinema. The tale of the tiny community that took on the oil barons, represented by Burt Lancaster, began when Puttnam spotted a story in a Scottish newspaper. Forsyth had the Hollywood legend in mind from the off; it was up to Puttnam to land him.

"I was given a price for Burt Lancaster from his agent. A lovely man. I thought, I'll get that down. I worked for nine months and never budged them a dollar, not one single dollar." But once Lancaster was on board, Puttnam did a deal with an American TV network that paid for Lancaster and more. The lesson: never lose sight of the bigger picture.

As with Chariots, Puttnam, now 71, believes Local Hero is a film that will endure. "It's the world most of us want to live inside, the world of our dreams. It's real-life Brigadoon." Should the reissued Chariots be a success, he hopes Local Hero could make a similar, digitally remastered return.

Puttnam became a big fish across the pond in 1986 when he was appointed studio chief at Columbia Pictures. His time in charge turned out to be an epic culture clash between a determined Brit and an equally determined Hollywood system, driven by agents, which took to Puttnam's ideas like a cat to water. Puttnam thought he could make more alternative films less expensively. "What I forgot was the power of the agent." The Mr Ten Per Cents were not interested in less money. In a town where everyone wants to be in the top tier, Puttnam made it plain he could live without it. He walked away.

His life was, and remains, his family – his wife of 50-plus years, Patsy, his two children and now his grandchildren. "I know what makes me feel good about myself."

Isn't politics tougher than film? "I always laugh when people say politics is a rough old game. I say you have no idea. It's a nicer business. People do not parade their toughness in politics." Take the chap he shares an office with in the Lords, one Jack McConnell, former First Minister of this parish. "One of the nicest men I've ever dealt with in my life."

Puttnam is a man who likes to fight the good fight. While doing so he is engaged in another battle – against ME. "It worries my family more than it worries me. I've got it, I've got it forever." What's worse, he says, is the depression that accompanies the illness. "The depression is scary because every single time you think, this is the big one. It's a bit like earthquakes."

Puttnam will be there for the Olympics opening ceremony and the 1500 metres final. Among the faces that will doubtless flit across his mind when he sees the feats of sporting heroism will be Liddell's. "What I get out of Eric, and the movie, is the sense that you can cling on to your values, hold to your values, and win."

Chariots of Fire opens in cinemas tomorrow.